19 January 2016

I'm an atheist because... (part 1)

I deconverted from Christianity almost 17 years ago (!!!), but I spent quite a few years as what you might call a "theistic agnostic": I believed there was some kind of higher power, certainly not the obviously anthropomorphic and culturally crafted deity of the mostly-fictitious Bible, but something. Something that explained how and why anything exists at all, something that grounds moral judgments, and something that explains mind-boggling complexity like that of evolution or cosmology.

Over the years I read many things that caused me to scrutinize those beliefs and, in time, I considered myself an atheist. That was around 2008, shortly after beginning my first blog The Apostasy, which later became the original iteration of The A-Unicornist (now conveniently archived here). My reasons for being an atheist are complicated and difficult to concisely summarize, but that's exactly what I'm going to try to do here.
Managed expectations

When I look out on the world, what I see is a world that is exactly what we should expect if there is no God. In this case, I'm not talking about some nebulous "Creator" or the cringe-worthy "Sustainer", but a theistic God who cares about human affairs and created the universe with our existence and purpose foreordained. I think this is the case for several reasons.

The first is that our existence is, in itself, an insignificant blip in cosmic terms. We've been on Earth for less than 200,000 years, at one pre-historical point facing a dwindling population on the brink of extinction. Life has been busy evolving for 3.5 billion years, in a universe that stretches back 13.8 billion years. Human lives have often been short and miserable, with untold numbers succumbing to predation, disease, exposure, or starvation as we clawed our way into the dawn of agriculture and began the stretch of modern humanity with which we are most familiar.

None of that, to me, seems to comport with a loving God who remotely cares about human flourishing. Our modern flourishing has resulted from our ability to overcome the hostility of nature through our power of reason and scientific inquiry — not because the world is gentle and welcoming. Suffering and death are, and always have been, utterly indiscriminate. I mentioned in the previous post that I recently saw Tool in concert, and that I was a bit bummed they didn't play the song Vicarious. Sample lyric:

The Universe is hostile, so impersonal
Devour to survive
So it is, so it's always been

That's the reality of it. The universe does not care about you. It doesn't care about your dreams, goals, ambitions, health, or happiness. It doesn't care whether you live or die and indeed, even now, humanity exists on a knife's edge of survival. And yet we're supposed to believe that there's a God who cares not only about our survival and happiness, but about who we sleep with, what religion we believe in, or how we treat one another?

Add to this that the universe itself is mostly unfathomably vast emptiness, stars, gaseous planets and black holes, and it's hard to see how anyone can be so anthropocentric and credulous as to believe any of it is here for us. If the universe is "designed" or "fine tuned" for anything, it might as well be black holes or empty space.
A square peg in a round hole

Over the centuries, theists have concocted some pretty elaborate and convoluted post hoc rationalizations to try to fit the square peg of a loving Creator or Sustainer into the round hole of a cold, indifferent universe. Perhaps God is, as William Lane Craig has argued, some kind of artist and that's why his creation seems so queer. Problem is, of course, that such an argument could be used to justify the existence of anything at all. When you start from the bottom up, asking yourself what one ought to reasonably expect if a theistic God exists, it always falls short. People's fortunes are not affected by their faith. There's not a shred of evidence that prayer has any effect. There's even an inverse correlation between religiosity and societal well-being, with some of the world's most secular countries being the among the wealthiest, safest, and happiest. Is that what we should expect if a theistic God exists?

It's worth pointing out that there's even a whole school of theological 'inquiry' (such as theologians inquire about anything) regarding the 'problem of divine hiddenness'. Philosopher Michael Rea suggests that "Perhaps God simply desires communion rather than overt communication with human beings, and perhaps God has provided ways for us to experience God’s presence richly even amidst the silence." This kind of argument fails in two ways: one, it is entirely post hoc; it is simply an attempt to rationalize the existence of a particular type of deity into the world as we observe it by speculating about a being's possible motives, rather that providing observation as a grounds for believing in such a being in the first place. And it fails in its inability to address the indiscriminate suffering and death faced by humanity other than to say with a shrug, God could have his reasons. I wonder what God's reason would be for making suffering and death look completely random and indiscriminate, and indeed our very existence being spectacularly fragile — exactly as it would look if no such theistic God existed at all.

That is, in a nutshell, why I reject the idea of a theistic God. In part 2, I'll look at the idea of a deistic Creator or Sustainer, and tackle the oldest question in the book: Why is there something rather than nothing?

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